When the UK first entered lockdown, I’d just started a new self-care subscription from a mental health charity. Each month a surprise package encouraging relaxation, creativity, and reflection would be delivered to my door. I looked forward to the little treats: soy wax candles, a lavender rollerball, a bookmark topped with a satisfyingly fluffy pom-pom. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
My latest care box contains a small stack of marbled paper. “This month’s box is all about origami,” the welcome note read, in swirly font. Cool, I thought to myself. After work that evening, I set myself up with a mug of tea and the step-by-step instructions, ready to enter the calm zone. That was, until I began.
The first task, a cute paper box, went relatively smoothly, although the lid ended up too small. Rookie errors, no doubt. But when I moved onto the crane, a supposedly straightforward make, I got three steps in and became completely flummoxed. My points and edges were all mixed up, and what did “undoing folds” mean? Frowning, I reached for a fresh square of paper, and moved on to the lotus flower. Needless to say, the only thing that blossomed was my sense of frustration. Eventually, I admitted defeat.
My ill-fated crafting project revealed two things: I was rubbish at origami and I hated the feeling of being a complete novice. I wanted to speed through the steps without a hitch and have a collection of crisply folded desk buddies to show for it.
The key to cancelling out my feelings of inadequacy, I decided, was to focus on my daily routine, with renewed vigour: reading two chapters of my book before work, listening to podcasts in my lunch break, and at the weekends, sitting down with a pot of flour and water paste to scrapbook. These activities, unlike my pesky origami, could be completed with “success.”
Still, my industrious efforts couldn’t quell the niggling feeling that I still wasn’t doing quite enough — and I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Katrin, 31, a partnerships manager for a members’ club in London, tells me that she believes the loss of routine has created a sense of turmoil among her colleagues. “I think everyone’s feeling a bit adrift at the moment, no matter their level of seniority, because we can’t finalise on any of the projects [from] before lockdown.”
Worryingly, she’s also noticed that this uncertainty has fuelled some unhealthy working conditions, like digital presenteeism.
“I feel like my anxiety has got a lot worse. I feel pressured to stay available online at all times in case anyone sends me a message. I’ve also noticed that some people are picking up tasks beyond their remit, as if they’re trying to get brownie points.”
According to Michelle Scott, a psychotherapist at The Recovery Centre, “Some of the competition may have come from a desperate need to create a sense of power and to not feel the panic of what we could not control.”
“When lockdown first started, everyone was paying lip service to this idea that it was perfectly fine to have ‘off’ days, and go at your own pace,” says 28-year-old London-based marketing executive Sadie. “But I literally don’t know anyone that admits to feeling below par. People are still working crazy hours, and on top of that, they’re doing all this extracurricular stuff like virtual book clubs that gives me FOMO. I feel guilty for just watching TV at the end of the day.”
The pressure Sadie describes is what I’m unofficially calling the “lockdown bounce back.” It’s a phenomenon that lacks the same degree of self-awareness Erin Griffith observes in her article “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” Hustlers, she writes, “see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in.” The same cannot be said of the lockdown bounce back: an insidious permutation of its predecessor which skirts the line of having fun and being productive.
Over on Instagram, this philosophy reveals a darker side. I was vaguely aware that half my frustration with crafting was linked to relentless productivity; but everywhere I turned, I was bombarded with messages encouraging me to “put a positive spin” on lockdown by making, baking, and creating. My timeline, filled with intricately decorated focaccia, decoupage, and lengthy captions, belied the complexity of starting from zero.
But just like Edward gorging on enchanted Turkish Delight, what first seems enticing can still make us mightily sick. If we’re crafting just to keep busy, then we’re still buying into an exploitative system; one that prioritizes our productivity over our health. If busyness defines our leisure time, it can quickly corrupt other areas of our life, too.
“The desire to feel back in control by taking action is a natural survival instinct,” says Michelle. “It feels good to be busy and productive as it helps us to not feel the threat of what was happening in the outside world.” While this may have proved a useful coping mechanism in the short term, she explains, keeping busy to distract from difficult feelings isn’t healthy, nor sustainable.
According to a recent survey there’s been an increase in anxiety levels with almost 50 percent of people reporting high anxiety at the beginning of lockdown and higher anxiety scores than they did at the end of 2019.
Another study revealed that around 80 percent of British people working from home feel lockdown has had a negative impact on their mental health.
The US, too, is on the brink of a national mental health crisis: a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half of Americans believe the pandemic is harming their mental health, while text messages to the federal government’s emergency distress hotline, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, soared by more than 1,000 percent in April.
Granted, no one enjoys feeling out of their depth. But our inherent bias toward action doesn’t help us reckon with the discomfort of inexperience, which lies at the root of the one-upmanship we’re seeing right now. To avoid that, we might have to make peace with feeling like a beginner, and all its complex attendant emotions.
“If we can encourage ourselves to undertake activities where we are inexperienced, we are telling ourselves that it is okay to be vulnerable,” says Michelle. “We are giving ourselves the message that we have the capability to learn. We are being a good parent and cheerleader to ourselves in this respect by believing in ourselves.”
We’re also giving ourselves permission to express the feelings that we’d ordinarily hide. Throwing ourselves into work because we’re uncomfortable being less-than perfect isn’t just misguided, it’s damaging. Sure, anyone would prefer creative satisfaction over frustration, discomfort and failure, but that doesn’t make those feelings any less legitimate; and denying ourselves the chance to draw upon a full emotional range simply stunts our humanity.
If we could cultivate a more compassionate culture, we could finally break free from the assumption that our value lies in our capacity for productivity. But what does crafting have do with all of that again?
“From the very beginning of our lives, we naturally use play and creativity as a way to explore both our external world and our own capabilities,” says Michelle. “Crafting gives us a safe opportunity to step out of our usual patterns and to gain confidence in not knowing or not being in control.”
If we mindfully engage with our craft, instead of focusing on our output, we won’t be making space for our uncertainty. We’ll be deep in the process of shifting our experience with new beginnings, which will pay off with our long-term welfare. “Having the tangible experience of something being created from the chaos of not knowing is a powerful lesson in trusting and allowing space,” Michelle adds.
Crafting also helps alleviate anxiety, thanks to the repetitive actions that allow us to enter a flow state. So, if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to thrive during lockdown, getting hands-on is a great way to restore a sense of balance.
“Learning to sit with the initial discomfort of the newbie experience in crafting offers a fantastic opportunity to learn more about what it is we find anxiety-provoking about this type of experience, and therefore how we can work with it,” says Michelle.
“Through the safe medium of creative pursuits, we can experience the initial instinct to stop the activity, and instead of running from it, we can become curious. We can teach ourselves that we do not have to avoid uncomfortable feelings, and that if we can support ourselves through them, we gain from the experience. We can gain confidence and self-esteem through learning and challenging ourselves.”
Remember my neglected origami? Well, I think tomorrow is the time to resurrect it and if I’m bad at it again? It’ll be okay.
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering culture, LGBTQ and lore. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.